SPECIAL ISSUE BLOG SERIES: Blog 4 -Big dreams and small steps: regional policy networks and what they achieve

Special issue blog series on strategic management of the transition to public sector co-creation

van gestel and GortenbregNicolette van Gestel and Sanne Grotenbreg

In many Western countries there are high expectations of regional networks in policy areas as diverse as healthcare, energy supply or security. In such regional networks, government is supposed to develop partnerships with private and non-profit parties, to develop solutions to societal problems that have broad support and commitment. Generally speaking, both public and private actors often recognise that they need each other to achieve their goals. But this idea does not generate success by itself. Sometimes actors tend to focus on their own advantage when participating in networksand are not very efficient nor effective in working together. 

Our recent article in Policy & Politics focuses on a study of regional networks involved in labour market policy. Governments, employers, trade unions, clients and educational organisations are jointly looking for solutions to persistent problems, such as discrepancy between vacancies and job seekers, and the lack of job opportunities for people with mental or physical disabilitiesIn other words, they need to solve problems of mismatch and inequality that have increased further during the Covid-19 crisis. Decentralisation and regional cooperation should, in principle, ensure more integrated and efficient public services, but also engender creative solutions that go beyond existing policy frameworks 

In our comparative study, five regional networks for labour market policy in the Netherlands were examined. Based on existing knowledge in the field, we distinguished between ‘small’ innovations, such as public organisations that offer services together (the one-stop shop idea) and wide‘ innovations, where truly new solutions are developed collaboratively to solve persistent problems. Such solutions, for example, might be to connect labour market policy with related fields such as healthcare and social policy, to assist outsiders from the labour market with ‘holistic services’ to get a sustainable job. Or, to combine labour market policy with economic and technological innovation and education, to help businesses and workers transfer to new jobs with different job requirements (e.g. in energy transition or digital transformation). 

What is striking from our conclusions is that such broader and creative innovations are considered important, but in practice mainly small steps are taken. The study concludes that collaboration in regional networks and its impact is still modest; and innovation in the form of small steps is limited to one region and a few local initiatives.  

It turns out that decentralisation to regional networks is not a simple shift from top-down policy to bottom-up approach, often in a context of austerity. Interestingly, the limited results are not due to the unwillingness of actors in the region to cooperate, but to structural barriers they face. Contrary to popular assumptions of a declining nation stateour study points to the need for national government to take even more responsibility to create conditions for regional policy success. Well-thought-out institutional and financial frameworks are needed to increase both small and wide innovation by regional networks. It requires multilevel governance to develop these frameworks and strategic leadership – not least from politicians in different roles 

By identifying barriers and enablers for network innovations in the public sector, we hope our research will, in turn, provide small steps to help facilitate wide innovations that create public value, as well as pointing towards future research agenda. 

You can read the original research in Policy & Politics:

van Gestel, Nicolette; Grotenbreg, Sanne (2021) ‘Collaborative governance and innovation in public services settings‘,  Policy & Politics, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1332/030557321X16123785900606

Read the other blog pieces in the series: 

Blog 1 – Public value as the game changer for co-creation of innovative solutions in the public sector

Blog 2 – Co-creation: the new kid on the block in public governance

Blog 3 – How public leaders can use co-creation to make things better

Read the entire special issue for free until 31 May 2021: 

Strategic management of the transition to public sector co-creation
Guest edited by Jacob Torfing, Ewan Ferlie, Tina Jukić and Edoardo Ongaro

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